Jurgen Klinsmann has had four-and-a-half years at the helm of the US men’s national team now, and he hasn’t built a cohesive team. He hasn’t figured out which players are redundant and which are complementary, which make each other better and which make each other worse. He’s pitched himself as an idealist (proactive, attacking soccer) and a pragmatist (it’s not realistic to think we’ll win the World Cup!) and made ideological stops just about everywhere in between.
But really, his job as coach is straight forward: Take the pieces available and make them better than the sum of their parts.
Following Tuesday night’s mostly listless scoreless draw in Trinidad and Tobago, the US are now 0-3-3 in their last six games against CONCACAF opponents ranked in the FIFA top 100.
Fine, we’re pounding the likes of Cuba and St. Vincent & the Grenadines, and fine, the road draw is by definition a “good enough” result. But there are no signs of the type of progress that’s absolutely crucial at this stage in World Cup qualifying, the indicators that a collection of players is becoming a team. Right now they are less than the sum of their parts, and the results show it.
1. The Limits Of Control
Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones, when paired in central midfield, don’t make each other better. This is a lesson the US should have internalized by, at the very latest, the summer of 2011 when Mexico were bursting through the middle time after time in that year's Gold Cup final.
They make each other worse, like chocolate and bacon. They don’t complete passes to or for each other, and they don’t do a good job of coverage defensively. Each of them is and wants to continue to be ball dominant, and each has to curb his best instincts in order to make room for the other.
For Bradley -- who had one of the worst games of his US career -- that often puts him into spots where he's asked to be a pure, final third creator:
It didn't work, it doesn't work, and it hasn't worked.
Worse still is the way the pairing compromises the US defensively, opening up space just in front of the backline and failing to provide coverage for each other.
2. Down By Law
One thing we saw a few times in this one was Jones dropping deep between the central defender to pick the ball up and distribute from the middle of the backline. This is a very modern thing, and the initial movement demands that you open up the flanks with what is often termed "modern" fullback play.
That basically means pushing the fullbacks forward into the attack. The best example in MLS would be the way Columbus play, though everybody does it to one extent or another.
Not the US, though. The few times that Jones dropped deep between the defenders to distribute in this one, there were no fullback options. Both right back Michael Orozco and left back Tim Ream mostly stayed home, and so Jones usually had to play long and direct to Altidore.
Jozy did really well in this one (more on that in a second), but even if you have prime Drogba as a No. 9, that kind of direct play is not a sustainable strategy against good teams. It is a valuable club to have in the bag but it is not a long-term solution.
The frustrating part about this is twofold:
- We're back to lumping the ball directly to a big No. 9, which is something we'd mostly left behind under Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley
- The mismatch of personnel and tactics shows an abject lack of strategic thinking in roster and lineup building on Klinsmann's part
Of course Ream and Orozco didn't offer attacking width! They're center backs! It makes no sense to ask that of them in the first place.
3. Night On Earth
Altidore continues to play some of the most mature soccer of his life, and in this one was particularly effective at dropping off the front line to try to both link up play and create attacking movements, like this:
Jozy had a few other seeing-eye passes, and generally took a beating in order to help out the swamped midfield, and to free up Gyasi Zardes to go on the attack (sigh).
In fact, this was one of the few obvious positives from this game: Either Altidore himself, or one of the coaches figured out that the midfield was getting swamped in the first 25 minutes, and so he started dropping deeper and deeper. He worked his ass off defensively to close down passing lanes, and the fact that he was always available in the hole meant the US were able to actually start creating some danger.
Now, the question is whether you really want Altidore in that role in the first place. He can do it and make it look good, but it's a reactionary movement that drags a guy who's scored 31 times for the US even farther from the goal.
Like everything else, it presents as a baffling strategic decision. And if nothing else has been consistent under Klinsmann, at least there's that.
A few more things...
4. Zardes's finishing was brutal, but his first touch was improved in this one. He was also much more daring in his off-the-ball runs, getting onto chances I wouldn't have expected him to see.
Especially good was his understanding of when to stretch the field vertically as Altidore was dropping into the hole, pulling defenders away.
Still, Bobby Wood was even better in that role in his too-brief time on the field. It's a shame he didn't get more run.
3. Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron weren't flawless, but they seem to have a good understanding and are at an age where you can probably rely upon them for the entire cycle. They did a really, really good job of shackling T&T's giant No. 9, Kenwynne Jones, after the first 15-20 minutes.
Let's hope Klinsmann gives them more time to jell.
2. I remain confused by Klinsmann's decision to pocket one of his subs in the heat and humidity of the Caribbean.
1. The US were out-shot 14-10. Against top 100 teams in official games (i.e., not friendlies), the US have been out-shot in six of their last seven games, and 10 of their last 11.